By Lakis Polycarpou
In the last couple of years, it became conventional wisdom that most Americans no longer believe in global warming—a dramatic shift from only a few years ago. In fact, according to Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, the change is “among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history,” dropping from 71 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2011.
To see the effects of this supposed change on the political climate, one has to look no farther than the current presidential campaign, in which a number of candidates–most notably Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney–have shifted their positions starkly away from their prior belief in human-caused climate change.
The reasons given for this dramatic shift in public opinion depend on who’s presenting the information; conservative think tanks point to supposed controversies that have arisen in climate science (controversies the scientific community insists do not exist). Climate activists, on the other hand, blame the change on a well-funded and orchestrated campaign by right-wing vested interests to change public opinion.
But is the supposed change as dramatic as it seems? Not according to a recent poll by Jon A. Krosnick and Bo MacInnis of Stanford University. In fact, the poll suggests that the number of Americans who believe the Earth has been warming has increased from 75 percent in 2010 to 83 percent now, with 72 percent believing that warming is either partly or mostly human caused. Nearly 42 percent described the issue as either extremely or very important to them personally.
So why the great discrepancy in poll results? After interviewing two public opinion experts, Joe Romm of Climate Progress suggests that the apparent drop is “almost certainly due to the combination of the collapse in media coverage of global warming and pollsters asking a deeply flawed question . . . instead of asking people what they believe or think, Pew asks them what they’ve read or heard,” which “fatally taints the whole question.”
What has changed, according to the Center for Science Policy and Public Research, is media coverage of climate change, which–excepting a brief spike in 2009–all but fell off a cliff since 2007, which makes sense given the somewhat ambiguous wording of the Pew question.
What’s more, if Krosnick is right, global warming was actually a winning issue for politicians in the most recent elections. Democrats who took “green” position, he writes, won much more often than Democrats who did not, while Republicans who took “non-green” positions won less often than those who remained silent.
Has president Obama gotten the memo? After effectively dodging climate issues for the last couple of years, the President seemed to respond to a sudden surge of popular opposition by postponing and possibly killing State Department approval of the Keystone pipeline that was slated to bring synthetic crude from Canada’s massive tar sands to refiners on the Gulf Coast. Noted NASA climate change expert James Hanson has said that exploiting the tar sands would be essentially game over” for efforts to stabilize the climate.
Finally, much to everyone’s surprise, the recent outcome of last months’ Durban was the first time participating nations agreed in principle to a legally binding treaty to curb emissions.
All of this suggests that companies who have committed themselves to lowering their carbon footprint should probably take heart and remain committed to their long-term greening efforts, especially if they have a global presence. Neither the issue nor the reality of global warming is going away any time soon.
Lakis Polycarpou writes extensively about climate, energy, urban planning, supply chain risks and other sustainability topics. Most recently his work has addressed issues of global water scarcity and climate-related water risks for the Earth Institute at Columbia University.